According to RSF’s tally, at least 11 professional and non-professional journalists are serving jail sentences in Saudi Arabia. They include Raif Badawi, who was sentenced in May 2014 to ten years in prison, a thousand lashes and a fine of 1 million riyals on a charge of insulting Islam. He was also banned from leaving the country for ten years after his release.
RSF estimates that the Saudi authorities are holding around 15 other journalists although this is not officially acknowledged.
“Despite the ‘signs of openness,’ journalists languish in prison in Saudi Arabia, where they are tortured,” RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said. “There are no grounds for the least accommodation towards Riyadh on its denial of fundamental freedoms, including freedom of the press. We urge the French authorities to do everything possible to obtain the immediate and unconditional release of arbitrarily detained journalists, starting with the best-known one, Raif Badawi.”
While detained in Saudi Arabia, journalists are liable to be tortured and subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, which is widely practiced, according to the UN Committee Against Torture in 2016. Arbitrary jail sentences imposed at the end of unfair trials are often accompanied by heavy fines and bans on leaving the country for several years after release.
In the recent diplomatic offensive by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates against Qatar, the media found themselves at the centre of the ensuing crisis, which led to media outlets and bureaux being closed in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Yemen, and to journalists being dismissed.
In a letter to Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman yesterday, RSF urged the Saudi authorities to:
- Immediately and unconditionally free all professional and non-professional journalists who are detained or who are serving jail sentences solely because they exercised their profession or their right to freedom of expression and information; and, in particular, to implement the decision of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention with regard to Raif Badawi, Fadhel al Manasef and Waleed Abu-l-Khair.
- Ensure that journalists have the right to a fair trial, including the right to appear before an independent and impartial judge within a reasonable period, and the right of access to a lawyer.
- Amend the draconian provisions of the 2014 terrorism law (as amended in 2017) and the 2007 cyber-crimes law, abolish prison sentences and exorbitant fines for press offences, and refrain from using legislative and technical mechanisms for the surveillance and silencing of critics, dissidents and journalists.
- Ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
- Implement the recommendations on freedom of expression and opinion that they accepted as part of Saudi Arabia’s Universal Periodic Review by the UN Human Rights Council.
Saudi Arabia is ranked 168th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2017 World Press Freedom Index.